Beethoven’s final and most popular piano concerto, the “Emperor’s” heroic style and grandeur well earn the nickname given it by its English publisher.
“Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5,” James Keays opines, “could be considered either the last great concerto in the classical style or, because of its immensely powerful gestures, the first of the great 19th-century romantic concertos.”
The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E♭ major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven, popularly known as the Emperor Concerto, was his last completed piano concerto. It was written between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, and was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron and pupil. The first performance took place on 13 January 1811 at the Palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in Vienna, with Archduke Rudolf as the soloist, followed by a public concert on 28 November 1811 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig under conductor Johann Philipp Christian Schulz, the soloist being Friedrich Schneider. On 12 February 1812, Carl Czerny, another student of Beethoven’s, gave the Vienna debut of this work.
The epithet of Emperor for this concerto was not Beethoven’s own but was coined by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto. Its duration is approximately forty minutes.*
“Here, Beethoven is no longer writing up to his own lofty standards as a performer, but for the super virtuoso of the following generation,” Herbert Glass writes. “Yet while the projection of power is among the composer’s aims, overt display is not, with nothing resembling a solo cadenza in sight. With the ‘Emperor,’ Beethoven created a truly symphonic concerto.”
The concerto is scored for solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B♭ (clarinet I playing in A in movement 2), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani in E♭ and B♭, and strings. In the second movement, 2nd flute, 2nd clarinet, trumpets, and timpani are tacet.
The concerto is divided into three movements:
Allegro in E♭ major
Adagio un poco mosso[a] in B major
Rondo: Allegro in E♭ major
The first movement begins with the solo piano unfurling a series of virtuosic pronouncements punctuated by emphatic loud chords from the full orchestra. The vigorous, incessantly propulsive main theme follows, undergoing complex thematic transformation, with a secondary theme of tonic and dominant notes and chords. When the piano enters with the first theme, the expository material is repeated with variations, virtuoso figurations, and modified harmonies. The second theme enters in the unusual key of B minor before moving to B major and at last to the expected key of B♭ major several bars later.
Following the opening flourish, the movement follows Beethoven’s three-theme sonata structure for a concerto. The orchestral exposition is a two-theme sonata exposition, but the second exposition with the piano introduces a triumphant, virtuosic third theme that belongs solely to the solo instrument, a trademark of Beethoven’s concertos. The coda elaborates upon the open-ended first theme, building in intensity before finishing in a final climactic arrival at the tonic E♭ major.
II. Adagio un poco mosso
The second movement in B major forms a quiet nocturne for the solo piano, muted strings, and wind instruments that converse with the solo piano. The third movement begins without interruption when a lone bassoon note B drops a semitone to B♭, the dominant of the tonic key E♭. The end of the second movement was written to build directly into the third.
III. Rondo: Allegro
The final movement of the concerto is a seven-part rondo form (ABACABA). The solo piano introduces the main theme before the full orchestra affirms the soloist’s statement. The rondo’s B-section begins with piano scales, before the orchestra again responds. The C-section is much longer, presenting the theme from the A-section in three different keys before the piano performs a passage of arpeggios. Rather than finishing with a strong entrance from the orchestra, however, the trill ending the cadenza dies away until the introductory theme reappears, played first by the piano and then the orchestra. In the last section, the theme undergoes variation before the concerto ends with a short cadenza and robust orchestral response.*
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
The featured image is “Die Entstehung von Beethovens Mondschein-Sonate, Stich nach einer Vorlage von Lorenz Vogel, aus: „Die Gartenlaube“ Nr. 25, 1896 (Beethoven-Haus Bonn, B 2430)
1896) is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.